A Quaker foreigner living in Sardinia tests his feet and his faith running barefoot in a local saint's festival.
"Are you Catholic?" the widow asked me in Sardo, the native language in Sardinia and the closest spoken form of Latin.
"No," I replied, averting her pressing stare.
She looked away, toward the town's mayor at the head of the table, and leaned into me hard. "But, do you run with faith?"
Things can get thorny trying to justify your particular religion on an island that doesn't have a word for it, especially when grilled by a recent widow who brings two rosaries to a potluck lunch. After two years of teaching English in Sardinia, I had gotten used to bridging language gaps in the cosmopolitan capital, Cagliari, wearing loafers and a collared shirt. But this was the Corsa degli Scalzi in bucolic San Salvatore, and I was an American Quaker standing barefoot draped in a white abidu tunic. I had some explaining to do.
San Salvatore is a pint–sized village best measured from end to end in human steps. Its narrow dirt roads are lined with rows of squat Mexican hacienda–style houses and you can almost hear the theme of "High Noon" as you enter its dusty square. That thought crossed film directors' minds too, and the village was the backdrop for a handful of "spaghetti westerns" in the 1960s–1970s. It lies completely abandoned all year until it rouses to life in late August as families from the nearby salty fishing town of Cabras make the pilgrimage around the largest marsh in Europe—the Stagno di Cabras—to their stout domigheddas ("little houses") to celebrate the nine–day religious festival in honor of San Salvatore.
The festival culminates in the first weekend in September with the Corsa degli Scalzi ("Barefoot Race"), a poignant spectacle commemorating an Arab pirate attack in 1506 that forced Cabras' faithful to save a statue of the Savior by spiriting it from town to its hiding place in San Salvatore, a town at some distance…
Since then, every year at dawn on the first Saturday in September, the "rescue" is recreated by hundreds of barefoot males from Cabras wearing the white tunics, who run from the parish church in Cabras through a dirt road studded with rocks to the church in San Salvatore seven kilometers away, only to make the painful return the following day.
The more I learned about the tradition from my Cabrese student, Andrea, the more it intrigued me, until I finally asked him if I could run too. He explained that no American had ever run before—especially a non–Catholic—and that I'd have to wait for a decision from his uncle, the town mayor. Leave it to Italians to mix religion and bureaucracy.
Two weeks later I got a call from Cabras' first citizen. He said that there were many who didn't want me to participate, but that the central message of the event is supposed to be acceptance, as suggested by San Salvatore's religious centerpiece. This was an inconspicuous church whose trapdoor leads to six underground dungeon–like vaults dug out of the rock in the 4th century, revealing written scripture of Punic, Christian and Islamic origin side–by–side—reading like a linguistic timeline of Sardinia's tangled spiritual past.
"Run close to me, don't open your mouth, and prepare your feet," he closed.
So at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday morning all able–bodied Cabresi men and one American shuffled into church in a sea of 700 white mantles to hear mass. A chime of the campanile sent us outside in two even ranks before a throng of onlookers. Suddenly, an elderly man cried, "Currei in nomin'e Deusu!" ("We run in the name of God!") and we were off.
Four squat lads sprinted the bouncing simulacrum as far as they could before stopping to change hands as the rest of the pack followed, chanting a wailed call and response, appealing to their spiritual vigilante, "E po' Santu Srabadoi!" ("We're coming, San Salvatore!")
It quickly became apparent that the only way my tender toes could keep pace with those of my calloused companions was to painstakingly trace the street's smoothly painted double yellow lines. But after two kilometers the road lost its asphalt and we moved onto the Camminu de su Santu, a dirt path lined with pebbles sharp enough to slice through bare skin. We continued chanting as tourists and their cameras raced after us, but our numbers dwindled. All around me, young men were keeling over to pick the shards from their bloody feet. I later asked Andrea's uncle why the older runners didn't seem to suffer, and he told me that his generation was too poor to afford shoes until they were adolescents.
We arrived in San Salvatore to a hollering crowd quick to offer us roses and amber Vernaccia wine. I seemed to be the only one looking for sandals.
"Wait until you see the road tomorrow," Andrea smirked.
The Vernaccia flowed well into the morning as Cabras' 10,000 residents flitted between the open doors of the hobbit–sized homes. I was initially hesitant to follow Andrea inside, but once those who recognized me from the run spread the word that I was the foreigner who finished the race, any previous discrimination was brushed aside, and I was greeted with handshakes and refills. By 3 a.m., with the line between devout pilgrims and drinking partners blurred, the other runners and I hobbled to the village's lone bar, our bandaged feet following. Fittingly, Wild Card Hendricks ordered Terence Hill a drink in the same joint in the 1972 film They Call Me Trinity before saying, "A bullet in the foot hurts less with some alcohol in your system"—which apparently translates perfectly in Sardo, at least for one night a year.
A few hours later, Andrea and I wiped too little sleep from our eyes, left his place where we had crashed hours earlier, and fell back in line with our barefoot, tunic–clad brethren. The Sunday "rientra" is a much more strenuous and moving affair observed by nearly twice as many spectators. The runners offered each other kisses on the cheek and nervous glances as we waited anxiously. All of a sudden the sea of camera flashes stopped, the cell phone chatter ceased and a blanket of silence fell over a crowd that bowed its heads in deep worship. I closed my eyes and was four–years–old again, fidgeting uncomfortably on a stiff oak bench next to my parents at our Quaker meeting, brimming with energy, suffocated by meditative silence and unable to read, let alone comprehend, the written scripture on the wall: "There is that of God in everyone."
A piercing call in Sardo jerked me back to the present as a hoary–haired Cabrese tore through the tunnel of runners carrying a blood–red flag. The crowd erupted and we scrambled to follow, dashing forward in a blinding cloud of dust. The dirt path leading away from San Salvatore was now littered with the shattered remains of Saturday night, and an ambulance was waiting to treat runners impaled by the splinters of their own revelry at the beginning of the sun–baked asphalt road.
The pounding feet and roar of the pilgrims' chants intensified as we neared Cabras, and those who remained standing took off in a full–throttle sprint. As we arrived in front of the parish church, a mass of runners swarmed the statue, some weeping, some praying, and others silent as a Quaker—each expressing his spiritual sacrifice in a private way.
Eliot Stein is a freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared in Budget Travel, Transitions Abroad, The American Magazine, Travelers' Tales' Best Travel Writing, 2008 anthology and elsewhere. He lived in Sardinia for two years and stumbled (or rather, tip–toed) on this story while researching and writing a recently–released guidebook to the island published by Footprint. When not abroad, Eliot feels at home in Silver Spring, MD where he likes to run wearing shoes.